The Green Zone
by Bruce Fisher
Wanted: a farm, forest, or family plan for 1,500 acres of Buffalo
In Buffalo, City Hall says it has a plan for vacant land, and that its plan doesn’t include turning vacant lots into farms. City Hall actively opposed land-banking legislation, and got Governor Paterson to veto a land-bank bill just last year.
But just a three-hour drive west in Cleveland, there’s a new and quite different plan—a plan that explicitly endorses land-banking, and that envisions a smaller, greener Cleveland that stops the insanity of trying to rescue every parcel for traditional city uses.
Cleveland’s plan was put together by folks who have the courage to state at the outset that they see their city shrinking by another 50,000 people in the next six years—which is a refreshing nod to the reality that is facing every single Great Lakes city, including Buffalo.
Cleveland’s city leaders, both in and out of government, explicitly embrace land-banking, urban agriculture, and reclassification of land on which an appallingly high number of derelict firetraps currently sit.
The contrast between the two approaches is about as stark as it gets. Cleveland is on a course for the future. Buffalo is in denial—not only because Buffalo City Hall has been wedded to the same failed development policies through three mayoral administrations, but also because regional land-use planning threatens the personal economic interests of politically connected bankers, real-estate developers, and the town-level officials they control.
Sustainability, I think, is a concept we need to talk more about in Upstate New York. The Cleveland effort produced a document called Re-imagining a More Sustainable Cleveland (http://www.cudc.kent.edu/shrink/Images/reimagining_final_screen-res.pdf(.
“This initiative,” the Cleveland folks state, “encourages the establishment of priority development areas and priority conservation areas as a way of promoting smart growth while protecting Lake Erie.”
Here’s the Cleveland kicker:
“Because of the growing supply of vacant land in Cleveland, the city is now in a position to make decisions about where development should occur and where land should be set aside and not developed.”
How much vacant land is here?
Let’s go over that again: A shrinking Rust Belt city has just embraced a plan that explicitly states that it’s going to figure out how not to develop some land.
We drink the same Lake Erie water as the Clevelanders, but here in Buffalo, notwithstanding our near-identical experience of urban abandonment, our government leaders seem still to be drinking something else. Or smoking it.
As the crowds of suburbanites saw when they visited the Broadway-Fillmore area for Dyngus Day this week, far too much of the built environment in the older part of Buffalo is distressed, derelict, or ready for the wrecking ball.
Sprawl happened. Abandonment happened. White flight happened. The regional land-use planning process never worked well. Then Dennis Gorski abandoned it entirely. Now, it may never get another go-around because the current county executive opposes trying to create a new county planning board.
Take a drive and see the results of politics, racism, and the lack of county-wide or regional planning.
But if you don’t believe the evidence of your eyes, you can, with a few mouse-clicks, stroll through the real property tax database of parcels that lie within the boundaries of the City of Buffalo.
Working with Dr. Wende Mix of the Buffalo State College Department of Geography and Planning, we found that the City of Buffalo itself owns several thousand parcels—including the 27 vacant parcels on Wilson Street that city government has decided not to make available to folks who want to start a farm.
At our request, Dr. Mix assembled a table of what the City government owns. More than five out of six city-owned properties are worth less than $10,000—our low-ball figure for what it costs to demolish an un-fixable, un-marketable house.
That $10,000 figure had a certain ring to it. So we did another run, this time sorting all the privately owned properties whose assessed value is $10,000 or less.
Here’s what we found:
■ The city owns 5,489 parcels—totaling 448 acres—that are each worth less than $10,000.
■ Private individuals own 11,357 parcels—totaling 1,107 acres—that are each worth less than $10,000.
■ The total assessed value of these 17,000-odd properties is only $54.5 million. Compare that to the $37 billion assessed value of all real property in Erie County.
■ Properties that are assessed at $10,000 or less amount to almost one-fifth the number of total parcels in the city.
A simple thought experiment: What if the private owners sold their 11,357 parcels for the $42.8 million that the tax rolls say they’re worth, and the public spent an average of $10,000 apiece on demolishing and hauling away the stuff on each lot?
Answer: the total cost of buying up 1,500 acres of cleared city land would be about $213 million. At that price, the City of Buffalo would have 1,500 acres of cleared land—at an average cost per acre of $142,000 an acre.
Pay now, or pay forever
One can buy a lot of other land in Erie County for a lot less than $142,000 an acre.
For $1 million, you can buy 150 acres of vacant land in the Buffalo suburb of Clarence. It includes a 50-acre lake, so you actually only get 100 acres for your million. That’s $10,000 an acre for flat fields and some woods.
Drive south six miles to Elma, and for $759,900 there’s an 11.2-acre parcel with a thousand feet of frontage on Transit Road for sale. That’s $67,727 and change per acre on a classic suburban commercial road where the utilities are already in place.
In the first-ring suburb of Cheektowaga, there’s a corner lot of about six-tenths of an acre available for $99,000. That’s about $162,295 an acre.
That’s a snapshot of vacant, developable land in the outer, nearby, and inner-ring suburbs of this old industrial city. Those are the first three listings that pop up when you Google “farmland for sale Erie County NY.”
But what is the real market value of all those 17,000 parcels inside the City of Buffalo’s boundaries that the tax rolls today say is, at best, $10,000 apiece?
And what’s the cost of pretending that they have a market value at all?
Where is the investor who would take all 17,000 parcels at assessed value, and pay the $54 million for that 1,500 acres, or the Cheektowaga price of $162,000 an acre for 1,500 acres of cleared land?
The answer, of course, is that such an investor does not exist. Except that you and I and all our neighbors are already the owners. We are that investor. To paraphrase Pogo, we have met the problem: We are it.
But year after year, as the population of Buffalo dwindles, and as vacancies and foreclosures and abandonments continue, we elect mayors who continue to avoid the Cleveland plan.
The policy of the Griffin, Masiello, and Brown administrations has been consistent: to try to maintain services and infrastructure city-wide, and to invite developers to produce subsidized new-build housing in areas of the city that continue to lose population and lose assessed value.
To put it politely, that policy is not a success. The taxable value of that property has not grown. Foreclosures, abandonments, and vacancies continue to grow year after year. The population residing within the city’s boundaries (and also in the Buffalo-Niagara metro region, too) continues to shrink.
The result is all around us: About 1,500 acres of land, with houses and other assorted structures on a lot of it, that isn’t worth much—with about a third of it being so worthless that it has been abandoned to the government.
Could we buy a Green Zone?
Last year, Assemblymember Sam Hoyt introduced legislation to create a land bank that could be managed regionally. The State Assembly passed the bill. The State Senate passed the bill. Governor Paterson vetoed the bill in part because Buffalo’s City Hall didn’t want it.
Meanwhile, in Cleveland, citizens and City Hall and a local college seem to be able to accept certain realities—including the reality that their city’s population will continue to slide. Cleveland was 478,000 people in 2000. Cleveland will be 387,000 people in 2016.
The numbers don’t lie. Cleveland has 15,000 vacant properties. Buffalo may have as many as 20,000 vacant properties. Cleveland is shrinking, and they admit it. Buffalo is shrinking, and everybody but our elected officials, developers, and bankers know it.
Cleveland has some of the same environmental problems Buffalo has, with the Cuyahoga River and the Buffalo River both vying for top honors as the home of the most Superfund sites. There are also the problems of surface-water runoff, combined-sewer overflow, and not enough green space onto which rain can fall and percolate back down into the water table.
But we needn’t get too scientific about this.
As I described the problem of this massive inventory of our broken built environment, a knowledgeable friend suggested that we start thinking of how to build a new golf course.
“A golf course, a farm, I don’t care which,” he said. “Take 200 acres of your 1,500 acres. Buy everybody who lives there a new house someplace else in the city. Relocate one of the golf courses that the Olmsted Parks people want to get rid of. Make it green and make it cheap so that city folks have a place to play where they’re comfortable playing, so they don’t have to go to the white suburbs.”
That sounds suspiciously like a Cleveland idea. Here’s what the Clevelanders conclude:
“The lack of strong market demand and an abundance of vacant land create unprecedented opportunities to improve the city’s green space network and natural systems. Capitalizing on this moment to set aside land for recreation, agriculture, green infrastructure, and other non-traditional land uses will benefit existing residents and help to attract new residents and development. By balancing current and future demands for new development with the conservation of key sites across the city, Cleveland can reinvent itself as a more productive, sustainable, and ecologically sound city.”
Bruce Fisher is visiting professor of economics and finance at Buffalo State College, where he directs the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.blog comments powered by Disqus
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